I believe magical beings appear to the enchanted traveler. I was twenty. She wasn’t human.
My first glimpse came around people jumping and bobbing, possessed by Morrison’s L.A. Woman, strobes flashing. Hair the color of soft caramel candy, springy, danced like pulled Christmas ribbon. Her eyes tanned leather, her heavy cream flesh wrinkling at the corner of her eyes when she laughed, the laugh rich and deep proclaiming she was comfortable in her skin.
Like a buttress, she leaned against the pale cinderblock, her right foot flat on the floor, the other flat on the wall. The sixteen-ounce drink cup comically dwarfed her hands. She drew on the straw, eyes rolled to the left. Then, straw still in her mouth, laughed at some unheard comment, her eyes sparkling slits, her head bouncing forward and back.
Joy leaked from her pores.
Her flower print tank top betrayed the onset of puberty, the stonewashed denim skirt cut across her white nyloned thigh, her posture innocent of the provocative projection even stilted on four-inch heeled sandals.
She pulled on the straw long and slow, her eyes watching me from under her brow.
“What?” Her tongue worked the straw in a circle.
I thought I was on the other side of the room.
“Sorry.” I tried to turn and couldn’t.
The laugh again. “No, really. Can I help you? You’ve been staring at me for thirty minutes. I know I’m cute and all, but rea-lly.”
Close up, she seemed older. Her knowing eyes could laugh for a thousand years. I wanted to confess – anything.
She giggled around the straw. “I think you have me mistaken for something else.”
I bet my eyes crossed. “Huh?”
She rolled her eyes, pulling on the straw.
“Lots of guys hit on me.” She winked. “I’m not a natural girl.”
I squinted, calculating my next question.
Again, the rolled eyes, pulling on the straw.
“I’m a boy. I like to dress like this sometimes. Any more questions?”
“Just a few.”
I’ve carried Michelle’s story for thirty years. I’d like to say the story is true, precise biographical material.
Michelle was eager to tell, to validate herself. Facts fell on the sword of good storytelling
as facts should. I didn’t take notes, ingesting the tale over a few days. She had busy feet and little time, rushing headlong to the inevitable.
Michelle’s story is personal and intimate, told without apology.
She’d have it no other way.
My father was a salesman. Odd, I don’t recall what he sold. I could have, I guess, asked my mother at any time over the years but his loss, to her, seems much too painful. His death was life’s final sucker punch and Mom never got fully off the mat. She might have deserved the beating. I try not to judge. Yet, I can’t bring myself to be civil to her, even as an adult.
My father wore a hat, a bowler, black, the color of his overcoat. I can’t remember whether all men wore hats or just him.
Tall, towering over me, my father smelled of cigarettes, shaving cream and aftershave. In my early years, he laughed quick and smiled quicker. He worshipped my mother, often bringing home gifts like flowers, sweet scented soaps for her baths or salt-water taffy from overnight conventions. He’d take me under the arms and hold me up in the air, laughing at me laughing at him. The day he tapped my head on the ceiling he proclaimed we needed a new house. Much time passed before our new house would be forced on us.
The father of my early memory faded away long before he died.
The idea of a new house excited me, the full ramifications beyond my understanding. My brother Paul, four years older, wasn’t pleased and pouted for the longest time. Our house backed onto a wooded lot, which crossed a dirt road and led down across fields, spilling into a small river, a contributory of the Delaware. I knew I’d miss the trees. My school day would start and end with a shortcut thought the woods.
Susan Drummond, Suzie to me, lived three doors and across a side street up the hill. I could see her backyard from my front yard. Her father owned a Country Squire with real wood grain paneling.
My mother called Suzie a skinny-Minnie. Suzie’s hair hung long, the color of winter wheat and her eyes were the soft blue of a midsummer sky. The years would have a profound and dramatic effect on her appearance. Paul and I played together, but those times were slipping away, Suzie replacing him as my best friend. Paul didn’t like Suzie but only offered: she’s a girl as an explanation.
I didn’t mind Suzie being a girl.
One spring, Suzie’s father built a playhouse in her backyard. This was a real house, one room, small, had windows, a door and a real sink, minus the running water. Mr. Drummond let me help paint the outside, white, the same color as my house. I guess at seven years old I wasn’t much help. I remember we had fun.
Suzie and I played house, acting out little dramas. I’d come home with my briefcase, actually a blue loose-leaf notebook, and make up things about my day. Suzie welcomed me with a kiss on the cheek and told me what our kids had done. Sometimes we had one child and sometimes we had as many as a seven, coincidentally named just like the seven dwarfs.
“Mr. Jones bought a lot.”
Suzie rolled her eyes. “Good. We need the money. Sneezey just won’t stop sneezing and I think we’d better get him to the doctor.”
“Not that Doctor Matez. I don’t like him.”
“Well, it’s not you that’s sick.”
Suzie had an idea.
“I want you to be the mom, okay?”
Mechanically, matter-of-factly, Suzie and I disrobed, placing our clothes neatly on the small table in the playhouse. She donned my boxers and twisted, going to her toes, trying to see what she looked like. “We need a mirror.” She retrieved her underwear from the pile. “These first, tag in the back.”
“I know that much.” I slipped into her panties.
She giggled. “Does that always do that? John’s older and his does, but his looks different.” She rolled her eyes. “Since I’d seen his do it, I’ve been watching the boys in school. What’s it feel like?”
I blushed, didn’t answer, pulling her dress awkwardly over my head, fighting to find the sleeves.
She helped, her face patient. “Careful not to rip it. It’s my favorite.” She buttoned the front and turned me around, tying the ties hanging from the waist. I worked into her socks and shoes as she did mine.
She puzzled. “I don’t know how to do this.” Her admission came after three tries at tying my shoes. “My shoes are so much easier.”
I showed her how to tie shoes, surprised she didn’t know. Clumsy at first, she picked up the task quickly, doing it repeatedly so she’d remember. “All my shoes are slip-on or strapped. Sometimes I try my mother’s shoes. Do you?”
“Okay, now you’re the mom. okay?”
Holding my hands, she leaned back. “That makes you me. So you’re Suzie now.”
“You’re Suzie so I can’t be.”
“I’m Michael now and you’re Suzie.” She scrunched her face. “Wait, Michael and Suzie already are –”
“That’s us, I mean, us before we changed.”
“Michelle.” She tasted the name, then nodded hard. “Michelle. You’re Michelle now. Your turn. You give me a name.”
I bit my lip. “Sam? How’s Sam?”
“Sam – Samuel – Sammy. Sam, yeah, okay, I like it.” She took my notebook, the briefcase of the man of the house. “Let’s try it. Michelle.”
Our new roles weren’t difficult, not unlike our previous roles. I wasn’t actually a wife with children, which was no different from being a husband with children. Suzie and I were creative with our dialog and our dramas, obviously pulling on our personal experiences and observation within our families.
The first day we made mistakes with the names. After that, we shape-shifted like master shaman.
I was Michael and Michelle.
Suzie was Suzie and Sam.
After the first day, the four of us were never confused. However, at lunchtime the first day, a little confusion came with a tap on the door and a voice saying: “It’s lunch.”
Suzie opened the door, not the least bit self-conscious. “Hello Mrs. Drummond, I’m Sam and this is my wife, Michelle. It is nice to meet you.”
Suzie’s mother’s eyes got so big, I thought they might fall out of her head. She smiled. “Why, eh, oh.” She leaned forward. “It is very nice to make your acquaintance, too, eh, Sam.” She nodded to me. “And Michelle.” She bobbed her head toward the house. “I live just next door. Would you like to come have lunch?”
Suzie nodded long and hard twice. “Yeah, thank you for asking.”
Sandwiches waited for us on the kitchen table. When I sat, Suzie pushed my knees together with light pressure and unfurled a napkin, spreading it on my lap. “A lady knows how to sit, and a lady always puts a napkin on her lap.”
Mrs. Drummond giggled, almost a laugh, setting milk next to our plates. “And a lady needs her milk so she can have soft skin.” She looked at Suzie. “And a gentleman needs his milk so you can be strong.”
We didn’t switch roles all the time, just sometimes and always at Suzie’s suggestion. I adored the feel of Suzie’s clothes on me but never initiated the idea. It was Suzie’s house, clothes and game after all.
Toward the end of August, I received my first real lesson in human anatomy. The night before, Suzie’s brother, three years older and testing the fences, fighting over who might be a better human being between him and his sister, decided to display his penis in all its erect glory and proclaim: “See what I got and you got nothing!”
“I do have something.” She fastened my belt around her waist. “It’s just on the inside. You know that, right?”
I didn’t or rather I wasn’t sure. “You got a dick on the inside, Suzie?”
“No, silly.” Her normal patient manner melted away. “Sam. I’m Sam now and you’re Michelle.”
I nodded, watching her with innocence, waiting for an explanation.
“Okay.” She rolled her eyes and tapped a foot as if she had to pee. “Michael’s got a pea-ness, right?”
“Yeah, he does.”
“Now, Suzie doesn’t.”
I nodded. “Suzie doesn’t have a pea-ness.”
“John said Suzie doesn’t have anything down there, but that’s a lie. Suzie’s got stuff on the inside.”
I gave her the wide eyes. “The baby making stuff!”
“They told you?”
I shook my head. No one told me. It was obvious.
Suzie smiled. “To me, it seems better to have the baby making stuff than to have that pea-ness thing. And my mom agrees.” She looked side to side and then leaned toward me, putting a finger to her lips with a long, soft shh.
“Suzie’s got the baby making stuff on the inside, but she can’t make a baby by herself.”
I sat on the small chair at the table in the playhouse, first fluffing and then smoothing Suzie’s dress. “Okay, Sam. Tell me all about it.”
She did not sit, continuing in a hushed tone as if afraid to be overheard. “Dad, eh, well, any boy. Ah, eh, any man that’s got a pea-ness, I mean, all boys have pea-nesses.” She rolled her eyes and stamped her foot. “A boy puts his pea-ness in me. I mean in Suzie, or any girl, that’s any woman and then something happens and stuff goes inside me, I mean Suzie, and mixes with my stuff, I mean Suzie’s stuff and then like yeast when Mom makes bread it grows into a baby.”
I nodded politely, calmly, as I’d been told young ladies act, not getting overexcited. “That’s why those things get like that?”
“Like what?” Her eyes went wide again, she giggled. “Yeah, that’s why they get like that. What’s it feel like?”
I straightened my back, sitting erect. “You’d have to asked Michael. I wouldn’t know.”
Suzie wanted to change clothes immediately so I could answer the question. I insisted we have a Sam and Michelle day. I puffed my lower lip out. “I like Sam and I like being Michelle.”
Suzie stepped to me and swept her hand down the side of my head, onto my cheek. “Me too. But I like being Suzie and I like Michael.”
“Which do you like better?”
She shrugged. “Don’t know. Both.”
I mocked her, leaning forward with a finger to my lips. “Shh. Sometimes when I’m Michael I think about being Michelle and I just wish to be her so bad.”
“I like being Sam.”
“But when I’m Michelle, I never think about being Michael and wish it.”
Suzie giggled, picking up the notebook, the briefcase of the man of the house. “If you were Michelle all the time, you just might wish to be Michael. We’ll be Sam and Michelle until lunch. I’m going to work.” She left the playhouse, I went to the sink. She came back in and I kissed her on the cheek.
“How was your day, Sam?”
Suzie leaned back and presented a dandelion. “You really look beautiful today, Michelle. I’m glad I have you to come home to.” She hugged me fully.
With my head on her shoulder, I hugged her back. “Me too, Sam. Me too.”
We switched roles just before lunch. After lunch, Mrs. Drummond announced she had errands to run and the food shopping. “Can Michelle go?” Suzie asked with great excitement. My heart leaped at the suggestion. Michelle’s world had been small and confined. I hadn’t thought about the world beyond and Michelle in the greater world.
Mrs. Drummond pursed her lips, looked long at me and then smiled. “Not this time. I have to stop at the doctor’s and it might take a while. Maybe next week.”
Mrs. Drummond told us to behave ourselves, she would be back in two hours and waved as she backed out the long driveway. Holding hands, Suzie and I waved back. “Now.” Suzie put a finger to the air. “I can show you.”
“Show me what?”
She dragged me back into the house, across the kitchen and through the basement doorway. “Be careful.” The dark, cluttered and rickety steps moaned under our feet. Their basement, obviously, served as storage, unlike ours, more like a crawlspace.
Kneeling at a bench, Suzie pushed boxes aside and slid another box forward, dropping it hard to the damp concrete. “This. Put this on the table over there.”
I did as instructed. “A movie thing?” The heavy machine had an odd mechanical smell.
“Projector. It’s a movie projector.” Suzie released the snaps and lifted the cover. She moved an arm up and in place, then turned the machine around. “See if I can remember how to do this.” She fumbled with two movie reels tethered with a strip of film.
“There, I think.” The projector came alive with a surprisingly loud clatter and stopped just as quickly. “Get the light?”
I did, get the light, at the top of the steps. I worked my way back in the darkness, stumbling over something-or-other only twice.
Suzie looked at me, pointing toward the wall. “I told you, well, there’s stuff that gets up in me.” The clatter broke the quiet, the darkness cut to the wall by a beam of white light, a moving picture painted on the wall.
I twisted my neck and narrowed my eyes in an attempt to understand what I saw. A man sat on a chair. A woman sat on him facing us, her legs on the outside of his, both were naked. She moved up and down as he held onto her, attempting to squirrel around as if he wanted to be seen by the camera.
“They don’t always do it this way.” Suzie called over the noise, clinically, from the projector. “This just shows best what I’m talking about.”
The woman on the wall distorted her face and shouted something. With no audio, I couldn’t tell what she yelled. The man’s face disappeared behind the woman, his hands grabbing at her flopping breasts. The camera moved in until her face and feet were cut off. Then, I noticed his large, erect penis. She lifted up, almost revealing the head and then plunged down, completely consuming the shaft repeatedly.
The camera went closer as a hand appeared, his hand, taking his penis as it slid free of her body.
“Now!” Suzie thrust her fist at the dancing image.
The hand on the wall pulled three times and the penis jumped, bursting forth with a stream of goo up the woman’s stomach, then again, but only half as far and then once more, half again. The camera pulled back as the hand worked at the penis and the woman rubbed the goo on her stomach and chest. They laughed silently in the bright light and loud chatter.
Like a baseball card in the spokes of a bicycle wheel slowing down, the projector crept to a stop, the light disappearing. The fan hummed. “That’s the stuff that goes inside and mixes with my stuff to make babies.”
I tried to take it all in. “You think?”
“Yeah. My brother told me.”
“Oh, silly, they didn’t mean to make a baby!”
I twisted my face. “John told you?”
“Yeah. He’s the one who showed me these. Rather, I caught him watching them. They’re my parent’s.”
“Yeah. When no one’s home, he comes down here and watches and jerks off.”
“Jerks off?” I knew what she meant.
“Yeah, you know, plays with himself.”
I was glad for the dim light.
“Want to see how else they do it?”
“Sex, Michael. This is sex.”
“I know that.” Maybe I did.
Wordlessly, we watched three of the dozen-odd movies. Suzie occasionally went to her toes to look out the dirty basement window, checking to make sure her mother wasn’t home early.
“That’s it for now.” She dropped a reel into its tin. She worked the cover over the projector and snapped it in place. “Down there.”
I returned the machine to its resting place.
“We can see the others another time.”
I shrugged. “Why?”
I shrugged again. “I kinda get the idea.”
She blinked and then giggled. “Yeah, me too. John’s down here every chance he gets.” She leaned toward me with another shh. “He wanted me touching him while he watched the films.”
She gave me the wide eyes.
The movies were interesting, and I did think about masturbating. I casually angled myself in a way Suzie wouldn’t notice, but I think she knew. I wanted to ask Suzie if the movies had the same effect on her. I didn’t know how. I watched women in the movies touching the men. I thought about what it would be like for Suzie to touch me. I hoped she’d suggest it. When she gave her opinion about touching her brother, I thought she meant the same about touching any boy.
We left the basement as we found it and returned to the playhouse. We didn’t switch roles. We didn’t take on roles.
Suzie pick up from the day before. “So does yours do that yet?” We dropped catty-corner at the table.
“Like in the movie. Does your pea-ness do that? I know it gets stiff. Does it make a mess like that yet?”
“Oh, oh, oh.” My face caught fire. “Eh, no, not yet.”
“John’s older than you, that’s why.” She pursed her lips. “But you still touch yourself?”
“John’s been jerking off ever since I can remember. I just figured all boys did.”
“Yeah.” I gave in to her interrogation. “I do.”
“Seems like a long time ago. Mom had to run out for something and John was watching me.” She rolled her eyes. “She wasn’t going to be gone very long at all. I can’t remember where she went. I spilled some milk or juice or something and couldn’t reach the towel so I went looking for John. He was in the bathroom and I guess I wasn’t thinking, with the spill all over the kitchen and all and not wanting to get in trouble.
“I just pushed the door open and there he was, his pants around his ankles, pulling on his pea-ness. He stopped at first and then smiled at me, watching me, pulling harder and faster until he grunted a few times and then pulled his pants up and asked what I wanted. He told me if I told Mom and Dad, I’d get in trouble. That was a long time ago and we never talked about it until the day I found him in the basement. That’s when I realized what he’d been doing.”
Suzie took a breath as she sat back on the small chair and watched me. “What’s it feel like?”
“Having a pea-ness. What’s it feel like when it’s stiff like that? Do you want to look at me, like John, while you play with yourself?” She bit her lip, watching her hands. “I don’t know, Mike. I just don’t know what to ask.”
I couldn’t answer her questions.